The roads we make

We all agreed we had to start learning from the people we were working with, and that we had to learn from each other.

Myles Horton, #HortonFreire , We Make the Road by Walking

So I’m in a pop-up book club, which is probably the only kind of book club I can manage, as I’m a terrible reader. I have a vision of book clubs that is part Oprah, and part my friend David the philosopher who tells me stories of Melbourne book clubs with wine and erudition and sustained relationships over time. I harbour unfair conclusions about both, and “join book club” is not on my bucket list. Worse, my own practice of opposing assigned readings when I teach makes me a peculiar candidate for synchronised reading even in a professional context. I can barely bring myself to read the agenda.

But I came across a group planning to read the transcribed conversations between critical educators Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, published in 1990 as We Make the Road by Walking. And this is a book I actually read, and care about, and keep by the bath, and go over and over like a well-thumbed bible of sorts. Bryan Alexander is at the head of the line, and you can follow his thoughts here. Beyond that there are posts by Adam Croom, Amy Collier and Ben Scragg that are extraordinarily rich companions to the first couple of chapters. There’s a schedule and a Twitter chat. As a demonstration of what group reading can do, it’s compelling.

So I’m in, figuring that if I have only one book club in me ever, this could be the one. And of course, Bryan is on chapter 3 so I’m already running behind. But I’ve been here before, thinking about how we learn from walking together, especially with people who don’t walk the way we do, or the way we think is right. This is from 2014:

If you’ve ever watched 8 year olds walk a school route, you’ll know that their progress is circular, wandering, attentive and distracted all at the same time. They stop to pick things up. They run about in circles for a bit. They dawdle and notice things you miss. Adults and older children nag at them to do it properly, to pick up the pace and make orderly, timely, productive progress. There’s an implicit schedule which we think they should follow, so that everyone achieves the walking-to-school outcomes on time.

But suddenly I realised that what they’re doing is learning: they’re learning about their community by making tracks through it, remembering that yesterday there was a lizard here or a dropped bit of trash there. And this is exactly the point smart people like Patrick Masson and Mark Smithers have been quietly making about online learning and MOOCs: what really threatens the privilege of universities as regulators of approved learning is the internet itself, because this is where we all go to learn, to “make the path by walking”. (Update: I remembered Bon Stewart talking about this, and she has now helpfully reminded me where. It’s in a beautiful post on her blog, and she’s taking up a point from Horton and Freire.)

Horton and Freire’s conversation about their shared histories of becoming educational activists begins with their own experiences as children, learning to read. In the chapter “Formative Years” (see, I’m really book clubbing it now) Freire talks about learning at home, sitting among mango trees, drawing in the dirt with a stick. Horton doesn’t remember how he learned to read, but recalls the transition from know-how reading to reading for meaning.

I remember learning to know-how read, my mother’s finger running along the words, the picture covered over with a brown window envelope so I wouldn’t guess. Next she was big on flash cards, and stuck them onto the appropriate items around the house, so we lived briefly in a labelled environment like people who might at any moment lose their minds and forget which was the door and which was the window.

Then my dad, the trained teacher, came home one day and switched all the labels around — Semiotics 101.

I did all right.

2.

“If I need a road, then I’ll make a road!” says Toad.

Start over.

When our older kids were little, my mother loaded us up with the Usborne phonics reader series. Slim little volumes of incredible tedium introduced us to phonics, rhymes, flattened cartoonish illustrations, and some modest relief hunting for a little yellow duck on every page, The girls loved them.

But there was one I also loved. Toad Makes a Road is the story of an enterprising and independent character who hops happily into her new house on a hill (brought to you by the h sound, get it?). Time ticks on (I’m quoting now, from ground in memory of those long nights) and the removalist truck can’t get up the hill, so (short version) Toad carries all her furniture up by herself, and then waits for her friends to appear, teapot in hand. One by one, they all tell her that her hill is too steep, and that she needs a road. She tells them brightly that she’ll make one, and is of course dismissed as a fool.

Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books
Illustration from Toad Makes a Road, Usborne Books

So I inwardly cheered every time when we turned the page and found Toad with her fully provisioned road building machinery—the really big earth movers, in the proper shade of yellow—laying the road, making it flat, and putting up a big billboard of welcome to all comers, all by herself.

Sometimes we make the road by making it. And this is hard work too.

3.

Why do we try new things? Very often it’s because of a recommendation. We’re social learners, it’s a survival skill. And so it is that this week I followed a pilgrimage of travellers led by Paul Prinsloo to try a new kind of social network. The result has been heartwarming, surprising, and something that will take more than this post to explain.

Here’s what I have learned briefly. There’s tremendous energy in the open source community to build social alternatives to Facebook and Twitter. There are some quite niche reasons why particular groups are drawn to these alternatives at the moment, and like any communitarian energy, it’s generating a lot of work thinking about boundaries and rules and ways of getting along. If you’ve watched enough post-apocalyptic survival fiction, you’ll know what this is about.

Entering one of these communities, even accidentally, is about practising the reciprocal hospitality of the guest, and I’ve been watching colleagues and friends manage this with real care and respect, engaging with a host community that self-represents as marginal and in many ways at risk. We’re not the only ones thinking about how to act well in relation to strangers, how not to trip or trigger. It’s going on all the time.

Many small technical things that Twitter has made (suspiciously) easy are harder in this space. It navigates like Moodle, and looks like a darkened cave. But what has really surprised and engaged me is the rewarding labour of learning from strangers–the time that people give to one another to work in collaboration. It’s reminded me of many things about the cooperative, curious, clunky internet of 1995, animated with the urgency of figuring out the paths we need to make in the swampy ground of 2016.

You can read more about it here and here (Daniel Lynds and Sundi Richard on its potential for higher education users) and here (Maha Bali in ProfHacker) and here (“Everything changed when the marxist anime twitter arrived”).

And I’m truly glad to be involved in thinking about the world we might make by learning from each other.

Heresy and kindness

There’s too much to do in too little time with too little money to be world-class in everything we do. What we can and should do is recognise the limits of what’s possible and encourage people to do their best – and I don’t just mean that managers need to do better. We all need a little more humanity.

The Plashing Vole, Good enough

Here’s a tale. When I first started thinking about how to write in public about the experience of working in a university, I looked around for models that seemed to me to do it well. I found Dean Dad and Ferdinand von Prondzynski, and from both of them learned a lot about writing about college leadership. But I wanted to find people who were figuring out how to write higher education from below. And because I’m generally a lucky type, I stumbled in short order on Bon Stewart, Jonathan Rees and the Plashing Vole.

I was really struck by how prolific, gifted and funny these writers were, and how they used their online writing as a way of reaching beyond the everyday of where they were to struggle with issues that were recognisable to me, all the way down here in Australia. But I also learned new things: refrigerators! fencing! NUFC! credit transfer! And all five of them made space in their comments for others to learn how to write publicly. For me, this was essential as I was still writing anonymously and worrying whether critique of my own employer’s business culture crossed some kind of line in terms of professional conduct.

So the first important lesson I learned from these five is that online writing is a practice of scholarly hospitality. In these hands, writing handled itself differently from the slugfest of competitive self-advancement that I had seen writing become in universities, a chronic depletion of purpose for most people sucked into it.

In these hands, writing showed itself as a gesture of welcoming curiosity. Online writing in particular offered a new way of handling lightly the big tickets: citation, evidence, reputation, impact. Online public writing allowed itself to be tentative, to let unfinished thoughts hang, to engage with difficult issues without fixing prematurely on solutions. Scholarly writers shepherding their ideas in public without benefit of editors and peer reviewers, and without the protection of a ten metre paywall, turned out to be intelligent, capable and accountable managers of their own intelligence: who knew?

And so writing for me was gently rescued from its service role in generating outputs for measuring, and returned to a closer relationship to enquiry. I learned how to write in order to think. Here were scholars producing a couple of thousand words a week without distress, contributing timely, relevant expertise to the history of human thought and if you had a question or objection, you could just bowl up and ask them, and they replied.

Isn’t this what we all think the academy is supposed to do in the world?

From this small group, who didn’t necessarily all cross paths with each other, I grew an online network that has been a rich and sustaining professional culture for me. Their links and citations have led me forwards and outwards into other conversations where new evidence is continually turning up, new ideas are continually in the act of forming, and critical reflection is the (mostly) welcomed response. This week one of the radiating circuits of this network in action brought me a question about how to frame academic event management with a rigorous commitment to postcolonial theories of self and subjectivity; another asked how kindness and diversity co-habit in academic teams and organisations. All of these questions develop me as a thinker and a teacher.

So I want to take a moment and thank the Plashing Vole for his beautiful and widely circulated post on kindness, struggle and modesty. His championing of ethical mediocrity is a heretical proposition in higher education at the moment, but like all his writing, it’s a disarming bit of very smart thinking disguised as a chat. PV tells a story about an everyday logistical failure (a room not booked, a class underprepared) and he does it with such generosity and detail that I can still easily picture his students trudging from campus to campus with him, trying not to think about the Duchess of Malfi. We’ve all been there.

But his larger point is that all organisations need to cultivate a culture of kindness if these errors are to be bearable, and to do this we need to accept that rhetorical focus on 4* publications and the stellar careers of the few won’t sustain the culture that actually supports both. To keep universities operating, not only those universities with convictions about educational equity, we need to accept, and model, failure as a fundamental part of the innovation curve. We need to learn, and model, the kindest way of giving feedback if something seems awry.

And to do this, we need to create and then militantly protect practices of interpersonal safety and care across the higher education system. This means that we do need to ask our institutions to mind their language as they describe our thrilling futures, and we need to be especially vigilant during times of “change management”, whose very language is now doing harm to many. But PV is very specific—and I agree—that this isn’t just a problem that managers can fix.

We all need a little more humanity.

So I don’t think it’s just because I’m off to Mary Freer’s gathering of kindness for healthcare reform, but because I’m watching an extraordinary response to PV’s post, and to the ones that others wrote just before it, especially Liz Morrish. There is a will to value kindness in higher education at the moment, as a better culture for generating ideas, proposals and critical thought for the world we’re in.

I’m watching events and collaborations developing all over the place (looking at you #digpedlab and #indieedtech), and while I’m not sure any longer that we can or should try to fix higher education, I’m really optimistic that by working together, educators and learners at every level, we can develop a sense of purpose about how to care for this planet.

In a hundred years, we won’t be here, but we are all here now.

Plashing Vole, this one’s for you. 

The heart of it

The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it.

Akarshan Kumar, on #TwitterHeart

Here’s the thing. There is no single Twitter experience, no coherent “you” that can be better enabled by corporate tinkering within its miniaturist frame, because Twitter is just people. Millions of us use it every day—although apparently not enough to satisfy Twitter itself, or Wall Street, because Facebook. And we each use Twitter for reasons that are peculiar to us, in ways that help us make sense of the world from where we are.

We use it to listen out for things, to propose ideas, to be amongst people, to drop in on conversations, to join a crowd, to run rings around a stupid thing, to pay respects, or just to hear from one person, to mark one single struggle to make it through a sleepless night. We use it at work. We use it with our families. We use it to network. We use it to cross boundaries and make boundaries, both. And among this vast crowd with more or less nothing in common we make the best that we can of the ways in which it doesn’t quite work. We patch and customise and turn a blind eye.

Sure, promoted commercial Tweets are exasperating and often untimely. Spam, bots, fake accounts—they’re all part of what makes Twitter lively to some and trivial to others. And then there’s the ugly side, the vile and stupid things that people feel free to say because distance protects them from rebuke, and because in some mouldy basement of human nature bullying continuously reappears, but as a game.

All of that.

So why the big deal about Twitter changing a star for a heart, turning ‘favourite’ to ‘like’? If we all used the same button before, you’d think that some claim to enhanced iconic universality would go down well with us. Isn’t that what makes us a global community, a worldwide human radio station?

But it turns out this isn’t the case. For me it’s because of the way Twitter explained it. In that moment, in that truly awful blogpost, we all just learned that Twitter comes from a very specific corporate cultural place, that’s both within the US and not. It’s a faith system, a set of beliefs that may well have something in common with other tech corporates, and it enables things to be said without any sense of irony or risk.

Show how you feel without missing a beat.

No, really, Twitter, this isn’t a simple thing. Jamming the whole world of human affect into a slogan doesn’t make it so.

And what the rest of us should hear is this: whenever someone tells you that their way of seeing things is universal, it’s not.

We’ve been down this path many times. Here’s Will Hays, chief strategist and political lobbyist for the American motion picture industry, advancing the case in 1945 that Hollywood should expect to enjoy unrestricted global market share:

for through the universal language of pictures men of every race, creed and nationality everywhere have shared innumerable common, vital experiences, with mutual emotional sympathies, and in a manner to develop mutual understanding

In 1945, this vision of everyone everywhere coming to a common understanding carried weight. But Hays had built his lobbying framework much earlier, and had spoken and written consistently on this question of the universality of Hollywood’s take on things, just as Twitter is doing today. Across all sorts of changing political circumstances, Hays smoothly reminded the industry and its critics that Hollywood was above politics, and above the economy, because of the universal language of pictures in which it spoke to the world—and with which it expanded its market share.

Sometimes you really do have to stand outside of a culture—a company culture, a national culture, a zeitgeist of any kind—to see the limits of its claims.

Is Twitter naive about its claim? Is it cunning? Probably a mix of both. But the upshot is that if you’re a Twitter user who used to click the favourite button to save something to read for later, or to nod sympathetically in the direction of human distress, you’re now reduced to a gesture that comes with much narrower emotional range.

Screenshot 2015-11-06 11.39.38

Looking at this, I’ve been thinking back to the way that Twitter has brought news to me over the past few years, that I’ve marked and kept, and I’ve been wondering which of these possible meanings I could appeal to, without missing a beat.

Twitter showed me, before I could look away, the horrifying death of Muath al-Kasasbeh. Which of these responses could I have given? Twitter brought me right into the last moments, the fierce anger, of Kajieme Powell, and the desperate search for answers in the loss of Sandra Bland. In the middle of the night, with many others in Australia, I lay awake watching Twitter until the final news came from Nusakambangan that the long campaign to try to achieve mercy for Myuran Sukumaran had ended. And as the whispers went around, what could have been said? High five? Adorbs?

The Twitter star icon, and the language of “favouriting” was just as much a simplification. But no one from Twitter had thought to tell me what I meant by using it and so I used it for my own devices.

Now I’m reminded sharply that I had this privilege at all because of a US tech company’s vision of the universal, that turns out to be one I truly don’t share.

More on this

Bonnie Stewart is quoted here at Hopes & Fears and for me nails why Twitter’s gesture is such an epic fail in relation to gendered interactions among strangers in a crowd.

Laura Gogia has a really thoughtful post about how we could come to terms with this.

Maha Bali has pulled together a conversation on different sides to this.

There’s a whole lot of reaction on #TwitterHeart on Twitter.

 

Making change

So why are most universities monolithic, conservative, bureaucratic and resistant to change? F. M. Cornford’s splendid little monograph Microcosmographia Academica (1908) examines the “enemy of inertia” and finds that “there is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing”. While change is theoretically deemed to be a “good thing” by “change managers” – commonly known as vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors – those managers often encounter resistance from ordinary academics.

Steve Olivier, ‘How to manage rapid change

Ordinary academics: resisting the pace of change since 1908.

Colleagues, if you’re writing something in this vein—a strategic planning document, maybe—and academics are your probable readership, please think about what we do for a living. We’re an evidence-based profession, you can throw facts at us. As researchers, we’re continuously called to account on the rigour and robustness of our projects. Our teaching is subordinated to many, many levels of quality assurance to check that we’re not just making stuff up. We’re performance managed, and surveyed, and our grant applications and publications and methods and results and even our grammar are pushed through the mincer of blind, competitive and often pretty harsh peer review.

So if you really want to engage us in changing the way that we work because the bottom line just fell through the floor (and as we pay our bills and manage our savings in the same economy that you do, we do actually know how these things happen) we can help you better if you deal with the following in clear language, with real evidence. We can handle both spreadsheets and dashboards, whatever works best for you.

What specific and demonstrable problem does your change solution solve? What is the scale of the problem, and its likely trend direction—not in generalised terms but in our specific situation? What will have changed about the problem by the time your solution hits the ground?

Will your change solution make things better, or just different?

Does your change solution have potential unintended consequences, and what’s the likelihood that we’ll all be struck by them in about a year’s time? Will we have to do this twice?

Is your change solution one that you previously implemented—with success or not—in a completely different context than this one? What evidence for change comes from the situation that we are all in now? Why does your pre-loved change solution seem suited to the new environment in which you intend to roll it out?

What does your change solution reveal about your own values and goals in business, and about what matters to you as a thinker? Why do you hold these views? How carefully have you been able to evaluate the existing values, goals and practices in the situation that you’re proposing to change?

And when you tell the story of your change solution, and the way your intelligent and experienced colleagues respond to it, what sorts of anecdote do you choose for evidence (which, by the way, is not evidence)? Are you the hero of this narrative? Are you its victim?

I recently saw a lecturer informing students of the introduction of the grade point average system with the words: “Don’t shoot the messenger, blame senior management.”

Well, I recently saw a lecturer helping a student work through the complexity of a puzzling assignment, and I recently saw a lecturer eating at her keyboard, and I recently saw a full professor tweeting her tattoo to students, and I could go on and on, but I wouldn’t use these tiny snippets of everyday lecturer behaviour to prove a case for change. I’d just say that these are people doing what they do in their workplaces, building relationships, making change happen and tending to it afterwards, and as far as possible trying to keep safe all the people in their care—students, colleagues, even you—as we navigate the uncertainty of our market, and of the evidently fluctuating demand for the services we offer.

We use many of the same business tealeaves as you, sometimes at closer range and with more direct experience. We engage daily with the market and we reflect constantly on the feedback it gives us. We’re the frontline staff at the client interface, as you would put it: we’re talking with students, journals, conferences, scholarly networks, publishers, industry research partners and community clients, and this means we are also listening closely to them about what they think is important for us to do. We read budgets, plans, policies and we’re widely networked into global conversations about innovation, markets, economies, employment. We have useful thoughts on all of this.

And sometimes we are your market, as our own teenagers grow up and we wonder how to advise them about options after high school. The problem is that we have seen the often patchy ethics of higher education’s market sensing, sales techniques, and failure of responsible debt counselling from inside the whole recruitment process. We know our children are your sales targets, and there really is no loyalty contest here.

If we seem resistant to your ideas, maybe it’s because we’re thinking carefully about something that drew us here in the first place, a vision that now only persists in your marketing, sort of. We care about people, and we care that they’re not exploited as consumers or as workers. We’re all aware of the new cruelty in human performance management that is the spreading oilslick of your rapid change agenda; we understand that in the race for global prestige, ruthless churn in staffing is a positive for you. In a profession where meaningful job security and manageable working hours are the vanishing privilege of a minority, we’re learning that we need to take care of each other. Because you don’t seem to have a plan beyond the impressively contradictory strategy of mixing competitive reward schemes with mindfulness programs.

But as it happens, this isn’t just another predictable resistant-to-change #headdesk grumble about your lazy stereotyping, and your 1908 evidence base. Because you’re right: all of us who continue to work in higher education need to get stuck in to the question of the near future of our profession, the sustainability of values that we hold, and our obligations to the many who mind what we do, especially those whose taxes pay our bills (that’s also us, by the way). We have the capacity to help, and certainly the incentive.

Next week, I’ll be joining the #dlrn15 conference at Stanford University on Making Sense of Higher Education: Networks and Change. Fellow conference organisers and plenary panel conveners Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier have written some prior thoughts about the immense challenges of imagining, conserving and extending equity in higher education, and the practicalities of using strategic planning to advocate for change at human scale. I’ll be convening the plenary discussion on innovation and work in higher education, with Lee Skallerup Bessette, Petra Dierkes-Thrun and Jeffrey Keefer. Travelling Australians will be there, including keynote Professor Marcia Devlin.

If you’re in the area, there are a few spots left but late registration closes on Monday evening. If you can’t be there, the Virtually Connecting team will be on the ground making it possible for those excluded by conference travel and costs to meet with participants (and each other) and have their voices heard too. You can follow along on Twitter with #dlrn15, and we have a Slack channel.

If you have specific questions or comments about digital networks, innovation and the impact on work in higher education, you can also put them here, and they’ll be heard.

for KA and LM

Update: Anna Notaro was also provoked by the stereotypes in Steve Olivier’s article, and her excellent reply is here. Mike Hamlyn made the very fair point that it’s important to remember that managers in the roles Steve Olivier describes were once academics too. I completely agree with this, and especially that it isn’t helpful to combat stereotypes with stereotypes. The issue isn’t managing, or being managed, but being managed on the basis of bad (or no) evidence, really outdated stereotypes, and a limited focus on the purpose of change, relative to its pace.